Alternative Futures: An Assessment of the 2040 Security Environment absent Great Power Competition

Mike Sweeney is a former think tanker who lives and writes in New Jersey.  He is the author of the essays, “Could America Lose a War Well?” and “Could America Leave the Middle East by 2031?” He’s still not sure about the answer to either question.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


Title:  Alternative Futures: An Assessment of the 2040 Security Environment absent Great Power Competition

Date Originally Written:  July 22, 2019.

Date Originally Published:  October 14, 2019.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article presupposes that the challenges the United States will face as it approaches the mid-century mark could be quite different from the great-power conflicts with China and Russia that are now being anticipated and planned for. This article attempts to jar thinking to promote consideration of an entirely different set of threats. 

Summary:  America is likely to be ill-prepared for the security threats circa 2040. The tasks the U.S. military may be asked to perform in the face of global political instability, mass migration, and environmental degradation are likely to be both unconventional and unwanted. 

Text:  By 2040, Russia and, to a lesser extent, China are twilight powers whose strategic influence and military strength are waning. The former is mainly pre-occupied with internal stability and reform in the post-Putin era[1]. The latter has solidified its influence over the South China Sea, but the extreme costs of maintaining internal control over its domestic population and territories inhibit China from translating its resources into true global power[2]. The great-power conflict many postulated in the early twenty-first century never comes to pass. Instead, the U.S. military is forced to confront diverse but persistent low-level threats spurred on by forced migration, environmental degradation, and growing global inequality.

Several regions begin to undergo major political and social change, notably the Middle East. The region’s traditional rentier system breaks down in the face of falling oil revenue as the world belatedly transforms to a post-hydrocarbon economy. The Arab monarchies and secular authoritarian regimes begin to crumble in a second, more wide-ranging “Arab Spring[3].” While increasing the personal freedom of the region’s citizens, this second Arab Spring also enhances instability and creates a loose security environment where weapons and terrorist safe-havens are plentiful. 

Globally, there is a growing antipathy towards the world’s “have’s” among its many “have not’s.” Part of this antipathy is due to the economic insecurity in regions affected by major social and political transformation. But just as significant is the impact of environmental degradation on the livability of areas home to millions of people. By mid-century, ecological decline provokes massive refugee movements, dwarfing those seen earlier in the century[4]. As the stateless population increases substantially, the ability of Western governments to cope is severely stressed, necessitating assignation of military forces to administer refugee settlements and to interdict migrant flows. 

The increased stateless population, coupled with the turmoil brought about by political change in the Middle East and other regions, provides ample recruits for revolutionary organizations. Conservative, religious extremist groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have been discredited due to their social backwardness and exploitative hierarchies. However, the cycle of violence swings back to new incarnations of the violent Marxism that dominated terrorism at various points during the twentieth century. In contrast to religious extremists, the Marxist revivalists embrace many nominally noble ideas like gender and racial equality, the existence of universal human rights, and place an emphasis on securing dignity for the oppressed individual. They also draw an explicit link between the existing health of the world’s stable, prosperous nations and past exploitation of both poorer regions and the world’s environment as a whole. 

These Marxist beliefs form the basis for their targeting of the United States and other mature industrial states like Japan and most European nations. Despite their ostensibly laudable goals, the new wave of Marxists are willing to employ extreme violence to achieve them. The lethality of these groups is enhanced by major advances in biotechology which create new opportunities for relatively small groups to initiate catastrophic terrorist strikes. Proliferation of directed energy weapons renders civilian aircraft of all types increasingly vulnerable from terrorist attack from the ground. 

After decades of largely ignoring the value of international organizations, U.S. efforts to resuscitate such bodies to deal with many of the transnational problems undergirding new terrorist threats are ineffective. The result is an ad hoc approach where the United States works bilaterally where it can with whomever it can to address regional migration and poverty. 

For the U.S. military, the consequences are severe. Most of the equipment purchased or developed for great-power conflict with Russia and China is ill-suited for the challenges it faces in 2040. The U.S. military’s heavy investment in robotics still yields some benefits in the realms of logistics and reconnaissance. However, the complexities of dealing with challenges like migration flows, globally distributed low-intensity conflicts, and Marxist terrorism places limits on the applicability of robotic systems to combat. 

Above all else, well-trained manpower remains at a premium. The nature of many tasks the military is asked to carry out – directly guarding American borders, providing security and humanitarian aid to refugee camps, “humanely” interdicting migration flows, conducting counter-insurgency against impoverished, sometimes displaced populations – makes securing qualified personnel difficult. Some consideration is given to establishing a standing force of paid professionals drawn from outside the United States for particularly distasteful jobs, essentially “an American Foreign Legion.” 

The specific extent to which America should go abroad to address transnational threats is a source of intense domestic debate, with a wide disparity among political groups on the issue. One school of thought argues for developing and implementing truly imposing physical and technological barriers to seal the United States off completely from the outside world. These barriers are referred to as “the Fortress America” model. Another approach favors a robust and invasive effort to interdict the sources of Marxist terrorism through a range of humanitarian and nation-building initiatives. In this model, the U.S. military becomes something of a global gendarme mated with a strong civil engineering component. A third line of thinking argues for modestly increasing the physical barriers to entry into America while conducting specific interdiction missions against groups, leaders, and weapons facilities. These raids are initially referred to as “Abbottabad on steroids,” where small units deploy from the U.S. for short periods – up to a week – to secure and clear “zones of concern” around the world. 

The intense domestic debate over the military’s role in addressing transnational threats makes long-term procurement planning difficult. Many military members grow increasingly despondent with the thankless security tasks the challenges of 2040 require. The ubiquitous coverage of most U.S. military actions through everyday technology like cell phones increases civilian debate and military dissatisfaction. Force retention reaches a crisis, as does the mental health of military personnel. Most Americans agree that administering large migrant camps or attempting to address environmental degradation abroad aren’t what they want their military to do; most also concede that given the scope of these problems by mid-century, there are few other qualified options. 


Endnotes:

[1] For an excellent discussion of four scenarios for Russia’s future, see Lynch, A. (2018, October 25). What Will Russia Be. Retrieved July 21, 2019, from https://www.the-american-interest.com/2018/10/25/what-russia-will-be/

[2] See the discussion of China’s future prospects in Beckley, M. (2018). Unrivaled: Why America Will Remain the World’s Sole Superpower. Ithaca and London: Cornel University Press.

[3] For a discussion of the rentier system and its role in maintaining authoritarian governments in the Middle East, see Muasher, M. (2018, November/December). The Next Arab Uprising. Retrieved July 21, 2019, from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/middle-east/2018-10-15/next-arab-uprising 

[4] For another possible extrapolation of the security impacts of the climate-refugee link, see Ader, M. (2019, July 2). Climate Refugees: Our Problem from Hell. Retrieved July 21, 2019, from https://wavellroom.com/2019/07/02/climate-refugees-our-problem-from-hell/

Alternative Futures / Alternative Histories / Counterfactuals Assessment Papers Great Powers Mike Sweeney